This week we are looking back in history at a living legend in the world of photography. Sebastião Salgado who’s birthday is February 8th, has built a career around long-term projects, each one more impressive than the last. Continue on past the break as we take a look at the life of Mr. Salgado thus-far and celebrate his impressive portfolio.
Sebastião Salgado (b. 2/8/44-) a Brazilian-born photographer began his career as an economist, earning a Master’s Degree from the University of São Paulo. “He abandoned his career as an economist at the beginning of 1973” to become a photographer. (Guardian; Bio) It is this beginning outside the world of art that has granted him a unique perspective as a photographer, and what helped him connect with his subjects on a deeply emotional level, which is clearly portrayed in nearly all of his work. Salgado has “dedicated himself to chronicling the lives of the world’s dispossessed,” (UNICEF; Bio) and he is a devout advocate for change and raising awareness. He does this through his published works and galleries, which he hopes will inspire viewers. Salgado has said, “I hope the person who visits my exhibitions, and the person who comes out, are not quite the same.” (UNICEF; Bio)
His work is largely comprised of large-scale journalistic photography projects that typically take many years to complete and are usually spread across multiple continents. It is tough to put a distinct label upon his work as it is so expansive, but at its core, it gives us, the viewer, a chance to genuinely peer into the lives of people we will likely never meet. Salgado even says of his work “the picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good [sic] in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” (Salgado; Aperture).
While he is known for highly dramatic landscape images, his most celebrated works involve people; people typically of more impoverished parts of the world. What he does with his projects is fully immerse himself in their way of life, getting to know his subjects as well as he can, even living with them for a while, ultimately making them more comfortable with the idea of him documenting their lives. On this topic, Salgado says “ I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.” One of the things he is most well known for is producing powerful black and white images, by eliminating color, he forces the viewer to focus on the subject matter rather than get lost in the color pallet. He is said to draw a lot of his inspiration from Gandhi whom he admires greatly due to the fact that he would integrate completely with whichever community he would live with. This admiration is quite evident in the way he conducts his projects.
Up until about 2009 Sebastião worked exclusively with film, it got to a point where his assistants would be carrying 50+lb bags of film while travelling, and in a post-9/11 world, TSA screenings had begun to make this rather difficult for Salgado. He recalls a friend suggesting he try switching to digital, which he was reluctant to do, but he did ultimately embrace the new technology. His process involves digital capture of his images which are then printed onto contact sheets, and then, just like he would do in a traditional darkroom setting, they are processed digitally to mimic the film stock he had mastered so well (Kodak Tri-X) and finally sent to a lab which converts the digital image into a medium format film negative and prints them using a traditional darkroom. (Man; Evening with Salgado) To my knowledge, this process is not widely used and is almost unique to him.
Sebastião’s work is often focused on raising awareness of the human toll of violence and migration within impoverished societies all across the globe. It can be said that he cares about the people and he photographs just as much as the circumstances in which they are photographed, this caring and respect for his subjects is what I admire most about Sebastião Salgado, and I feel that in every single image I have ever seen from him, there is very little of him in it, his style is ever-present with bold contrast and power black & white images, but he removes himself from the equation, these images are purely about the subject matter.
The passion he has for image making is matched by his passion for the global causes that he supports, UNICEF being a major one. His background as an economist has given him a unique perspective in the world of photography, one that not many start out with but may eventually learn. He understands the plight that the world faces outside the “comfort-zone” of America and Europe, and while his images are beautiful and moving, they also carry with them an underlying warning that without proper care of our environments and what remains of them, our planet is destined for a dark fate.
In closing, I will leave you all with some more of his images and encourage you to get some of Sebastião’s published works, they are truly incredible, and the images stay with you long after you’ve seen them. The books are all available through Amazon or other retailers, but to make it easy for you here is a list I compiled for you all. Each one is filled with outstanding and memorable imagery.
“Biography: Sebastião Salgado” The Guardian 11 Sep. 2004
Salgado, Sebastião - “The Lyric Documentarian” published in An Uncertain Grace (Aperture), 1990.
All images ©Sebastião Salgado and his estate
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